10 College Football QBs Who Will Break Out in 2016
While running backs are starting to get more and more attention in college football again after a renaissance 2015 season, the offensive spotlight still shines brightest on the quarterbacks.
In 2016, college football will see the return of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield—two strong Heisman contenders. Others such as Ole Miss' Chad Kelly, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Notre Dame's combo of Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer will stand out this fall.
But this piece isn't about the signal-callers who are already big-time stars in college football. This focuses on those who make up the next wave of quarterbacking talent, which will rise to national prominence and all-conference contention this season.
Here are 10 quarterbacks who will break out in the 2016 college football season based on their performances from last season or their potential as first-time starters, as well as their respective supporting casts.
Which quarterback do you think will have the biggest breakout year in college football this season? Sound off in the comments below.
Arkansas QB Austin Allen
Arkansas made a rare move in college quarterback battles when head coach Bret Bielema named Austin Allen his starter more than a week before the Razorbacks' spring game.
"Last week when I was away for a couple of days, I was sitting there watching film and I'm like, '[Allen] is our best quarterback,'" Bielema said, per Cavender Neutze of Gridiron Now. "It’s not even close as far as, if we were playing a game tomorrow, who everybody in both locker rooms and the coaching staff would choose."
The Razorbacks apparently have tremendous confidence in Allen, the younger brother of former starter Brandon Allen. The older Allen finished third in the SEC with 264.6 yards per game last season, tossing 30 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in an offense that found a new level of explosion under new coordinator Dan Enos.
Now, Enos gets to work closely with the younger Allen brother, who has appeared in only eight games of limited work during his Arkansas career. Judging by the work Enos did in a short amount of time with Brandon, Arkansas should continue to impress through the air in 2016.
While Arkansas has to rebuild its famed power rushing attack this fall, Austin Allen is inheriting four of his older brother's top five receiving targets from last season, including breakout star Drew Morgan, who had double-digit touchdown receptions. Allen should be able to pick up right where the "Air Hogs" left off last year.
Boise State QB Brett Rypien
Boise State fell well short of its lofty expectations last season, missing out on the Mountain West Championship Game and losing four contests. But the Broncos look prepared for the future at quarterback thanks to the play of Brett Rypien.
As a freshman, Rypien threw for 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions while averaging nearly eight yards per passing attempt. He was an All-Mountain West first-teamer and Freshman of the Year despite the fact he only started 10 games for Boise State.
When Rypien was on last season, his play was quite impressive for a young quarterback. He completed more than 63 percent of his attempts and threw for multiple touchdowns in six different games en route to leading the conference in passing.
But he had some freshman miscues. Six of his eight interceptions came in just two games, and he completed less than 55 percent of his passes in losses to Utah State, New Mexico and Air Force.
After going through the highs and the lows as a freshman starter, Rypien is primed for major success for the Broncos in 2016. He'll have a full offseason of preparation as the No. 1 quarterback under his belt, and Boise State returns seven other offensive starters around him. A more consistent and experienced Rypien should be scary for Mountain West opponents this fall.
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
A dark-horse Heisman candidate in some circles, Lamar Jackson has all the tools to be a major star in college football this fall.
Jackson had an up-and-down freshman season with the Louisville Cardinals, but when they finally turned him loose toward the end of the year, the results were outstanding. He had five different games in which he threw for at least 100 yards and rushed for 100 more, and his season finale against Texas A&M was a rare 200-and-200 performance.
The Florida native has plenty of speed to burn, and he's changed how pass-happy Bobby Petrino calls his offense in Louisville. Jackson needed to put a lot of work into his pass accuracy this offseason for the Cardinals, and he seems to have done just that, completing 24 of 29 passes for 519 yards in Louisville's recent spring game.
"A few of those (long passes) weren't really designed to go that deep," Petrino said, per Jody Demling of Scout. "A couple of them we were a little bit late on. But it did show that he can snap his wrist and throw it that deep."
With a more accurate and powerful arm, Jackson should stuff plenty of stat sheets this season for a Louisville team that returns a national-best 18 starters—including 10 on the offensive side of the ball. The Cardinals have a tough schedule, but they should have confidence in their electrifying quarterback.
MTSU QB Brent Stockstill
If Brent Stockstill flew under your radar last season, that's understandable. Middle Tennessee State didn't have the type of standout campaign that triggered national attention like the ones at fellow "Group of Five" schools Houston, Navy, Toledo and Western Kentucky.
But Stockstill's numbers last season signaled huge things to come out of Murfreesboro. He was one of only 12 quarterbacks in the entire country to throw for at least 4,000 yards—and he was the only freshman to do it. Stockstill completed two-thirds of his passes, hit the 30-touchdown mark and finished with single-digit interceptions.
Now Stockstill, the son of MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill, is under the direction of new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jared Goff's coordinator last season at California. Franklin has a reputation for developing strong quarterbacks in his spread system, and Stockstill is the next in line.
In addition to the new system, Stockstill will rely on the talents of Richie James, with whom he developed a strong freshman connection last season. James was 12th nationally in receiving yards per game and tied for the second-most catches (108) in the country. Productive tight end Terry Pettis is now back at wide receiver, too.
The talented lefty has a bright future ahead of him at Middle Tennessee, and he'll contend for the FBS passing title this season. Don't be surprised if Stockstill is the next big quarterback on the rise in the Group of Five leagues.
North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky
For all the good Marquise Williams did as North Carolina's starting quarterback, especially in the Tar Heels' surprise run to the ACC Championship Game in 2015, there were still thoughts in Chapel Hill that the best was still to come at the position.
This year, the Tar Heels will get to showcase what fans have been buzzing about for quite some time when Mitch Trubisky takes over as their No. 1 quarterback. UNC head coach Larry Fedora thinks that the offense that averaged more yards per play than anyone else in FBS football last season can improve with Trubisky leading the way.
"I really hope there's not a position on the field that we're not better in," Fedora said after UNC's recent spring game, per Jeremy Vernon of the Daily Tar Heel. "They can see it on film, 'Wow. We really can be better.' We haven't reached anything. I mean we really can be a lot better."
Trubisky played a limited number of snaps last season for North Carolina—most of them coming against FCS school Delaware—but what he showed was jaw-dropping. He completed 40 of 47 passes for the entire season, averaged 11.8 yards per attempt and threw six touchdowns to zero interceptions.
If Trubisky can translate that elite level of efficiency and accuracy to North Carolina's big-play attack this fall, the Tar Heels should grab plenty of national attention again in 2016. After all, five of North Carolina's top six receivers from last year and star running back Elijah Hood will be the ones surrounding him.
Penn State QB Trace McSorley
It's a new era of offensive football at Penn State, and Trace McSorley appears to be the new face of that movement. McSorley is the front-runner for the starting quarterback job for the Nittany Lions, who hired Fordham offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead this offseason.
Moorhead's offensive system is fast-paced, using zone-running concepts and quick passes to move downfield. That's the ideal scheme for McSorley, who has great mobility in the pocket and an arm that isn't overly powerful but accurate. He showcased those skills in Penn State's spring game with 281 passing yards and four touchdowns.
"Overall the offense moved the ball well," McSorley said, per Jourdan Rodrigue of the Centre Daily Times. "I mean, I couldn't be happier, we put touchdowns on the board. We had one drive that didn’t end in a touchdown, so that's real good."
McSorley isn't the confirmed starter yet at Penn State, but he has a clear advantage heading into the summer. He also has the talents of Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall with him at wide receiver—a trio of juniors who combined for nearly 2,000 receiving yards last year and a dozen touchdowns.
The presence of dynamic sophomore Saquon Barkley in the backfield will be an added boost for McSorley if and when he lands the starting job. He has the tools to be a breakout star in 2016 for a Penn State offense that, pardon the pun, sorely needs one.
Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
If you're looking for a Heisman contender who could take the famous trophy if the race boils down to the player with the most ridiculous stats—think Robert Griffin III in 2011—Patrick Mahomes might be your guy.
Mahomes has potential breakout star written all over him after leading Texas Tech's pass-happy attack in 2015. He averaged more than 350 yards per game, scored 36 touchdowns through the air and completed 63.5 percent of his passes as a sophomore starting signal-caller.
"He can extend plays as well as I've ever seen," Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury told Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. "And his accuracy when plays break down, as far as a thrower, moving around, throwing from different angles. ... Pat's the best I've ever been around."
Kingsbury, as Trotter noted, coached Heisman winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and also played a hand in the development of Case Keenum at Houston. But from a skill-set perspective, Mahomes might be the best fit for the type of air-it-out attack Kingsbury employs with the Red Raiders.
Texas Tech won't be considered a true title contender this fall, but the numbers Mahomes should put up after another offseason of preparation—one that includes no-look passing practice—are worthy of national attention. He should turn plenty of heads in 2016.
USC QB Max Browne
Max Browne doesn't have the USC starting quarterback job locked up yet thanks to a tough challenge from the younger Sam Darnold this spring. The battle will continue until the fall, according to Zach Hefland of the Los Angeles Times.
However, barring a major surprise, Browne should be the starting quarterback for the Trojans when they face Alabama at AT&T Stadium on the first big Saturday of the college football season. His experience from backing up Cody Kessler for the last two seasons, as well as his strength in the vertical passing game, gives him an advantage.
"You could see it today," USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said after the Trojans' spring game, per Hefland. "He has the arm strength to put it over guys."
That combo of smarts and strength should make Browne an instant star at USC, especially considering the Trojans are bringing back nine returning starters on offense. He'll be able to spread the ball around to the likes of Smith-Schuster—perhaps the nation's top receiver for 2016—as well as Adoree' Jackson and Ronald Jones II behind an experienced offensive line.
It doesn't take long for a golden-armed quarterback at USC to break out and gain national attention, and Browne appears to be the next man up for the Trojans. If he can take full advantage of all the returning talent around him this fall, he could have a monster year.
USF QB Quinton Flowers
USF had the breakthrough season it had been waiting for under head coach Willie Taggart last year, overcoming a 1-3 start to win seven of its last nine games.
A lot of that had to do with the standout play of USF's backfield, led by dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a sophomore last year, Flowers threw for 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions while adding nearly 1,000 rushing yards and a dozen more scores on the ground.
Flowers is back for 2016 in Tampa, where he'll combine with powerful running back Marlon Mack to challenge for an even better record in the growing American Athletic Conference. USF is also bringing back a deep corps of wide receivers, making the Bulls offense one to keep a close eye on for the upcoming season, when it faces Northern Illinois, Syracuse and Florida State in September.
"It means so much to a quarterback and the running backs," Taggart said, per Alan Dell of the Bradenton Herald. "Our receivers will take more than one guy to cover so that is going to open things up for our backs."
Flowers should have plenty of room to operate as both a passer and a rusher in 2016, which could mean huge things for the Bulls. In a conference that lost a lot of star power outside of Houston, Flowers will stand out this fall.
Washington QB Jake Browning
Jake Browning was thrown into the fire early at Washington, emerging from a quarterback battle to become the starter for the Huskies from the opening kickoff of the 2015 campaign.
Browning knocked on the door of 3,000 yards last season as the leader of a young offense, one that fell short in several close games in the middle of the year but hammered its last three opponents for more than 40 points each. He's poised to take the next step for a Washington team that could turn heads in 2016.
"He played really solid last year, so for us to take that next step it's anticipation, it's pocket presence, it’s strike-point accuracy—those types of things," Washington head coach Chris Petersen said, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times. "So it's all very subtle stuff, but it's all subtle that will dramatically change his game and our offense."
Washington should be considered a dark-horse Pac-12 contender in 2016 with Browning leading the way, as the Huskies return 15 starters. Browning finished 2015 with plenty of momentum, completing 90, 70 and 67.6 percent of his passes, respectively, in Washington's final three victories.
Browning has already established himself as a solid passer who can bounce back from disappointments, and he still has a high ceiling as a starting quarterback. With the Pac-12 breaking in plenty of new starting quarterbacks this year, Browning should shine.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.